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  Home >> Animal Issues - Stray Dogs >> Gandhiji’s writings on the stray dog issue, in his paper Young India.

Gandhiji’s writings on the stray dog issue, in his paper Young India. 

Mahatma Gandhi wrote extensively about our duties towards animals, specifically about dogs on the streets and their welfare. He wrote about responsible ownership long before the term had even been coined. He brought attention to the plight of homeless dogs and legislation to protect them decades before any research had been done on the issue. Ironically except in India, humane societies the world over, implement dog control based on the same principles propagated by him over 80 years ago.

A mill owner in Ahmedabad, Ambalal Sarabai, had 60 stray dogs killed outside his mill. Being a Hindu he felt remorse over his actions and went to Gandhiji. When Gandhiji approved of his deed a huge controversy arose. The Ahmedabad Humanitarian Society and many other people asked him how he, the apostle of Ahimsa, could approve of the killing when religions like Hinduism and Jainism prohibited the taking of life. It is then that he used his paper Young India to explain what true Ahimsa really meant. 

“When I wrote the article on this subject I knew that I was adding one more to my already heavy burden of problems. But it could not be helped. Angry letters are now pouring in. At an hour when after a hard day’s work I was about to retire to bed, three friends invaded me, infringed the religion of ahimsa in the name of humanity, and engaged me in a discussion on it. They had come to me in the name of humanity. How could I refuse to see them?” 

“So I met them. One of them I saw, betrayed anger, bitterness and arrogance. He did not seem to me to have come with a view to getting his doubts solved. He had come rather to correct me. Everyone has a right to do so, but whoever undertakes such a mission must know my position. But he was not to blame for it. This impatience which is but a symptom of violence is to be found everywhere. The violence in this case was painful to me as it was betrayed by an advocate of non-violence.” 

“He claimed to be a Jain. I have made a fair study of Jainism. But the Jains have no monopoly of ahimsa. It is not the exclusive peculiarity of any religion. Every religion is based on ahimsa, its application is different in different religions. I do not think the Jains of today practice ahimsa in any better way than others. I can say this because of my acquaintance with the Jains, which is so old that many take me to be a Jain. Mahavir was an incarnation of compassion and Ahimsa. How I wish his votaries were votaries also of his ahimsa. Protection of little creatures is indeed an essential part of ahimsa, but it does not exhaust itself with it. Ahimsa begins with it.”   

“The Mahajan may not allow the dogs to stray… It is a sin; it should be a sin to feed stray dogs and we should save numerous dogs if we had legislation making every stray dog liable to be shot. Even if those who feed stray dogs consented to pay a penalty for their misdirected compassion we should be free from the curse of stray dogs.” 

“Humanity is a noble attribute of the soul. It is not exhausted with saving a few dogs or a few fish; such saving may even be sinful. If I have a swarm of ants in my house, the man who proceeds to feed them will be guilty of a sin…. The Mahajan may feel itself safe and believe that it has saved their lives by dumping dogs near my field but it will have committed the greater sin of putting my life in danger.” 

“A roving dog without an owner is a danger to society and a swarm of them is a menace to its very existence…. If we want to keep dogs in towns or villages in a decent manner no dog should be suffered to wander. There should be no stray dogs even as we have no stray cattle…. But can we take individual charge of these roving dogs? Can we have a pinjrapole for them? If both these things are impossible then there seems to me no alternative except to kill them.” 

“Connivance or putting up with status quo is no ahimsa, there is no thought or discrimination in it. Dogs will be killed whenever they are a menace to society. I regard this as unavoidable in the life of a householder. To wait until they get rabid is not to be merciful to them. We can imagine what the dogs would wish if a meeting could be called of them, from what we would wish under the same circumstances. We will not choose to live anyhow. That many of us do is no credit to us. A meeting of wise men will never resolve that men may treat one another as they treat rabid or stray dogs… We offend against dogs as a class by suffering them to stray and live on crumbs or leavings from our plates that we throw at them and we injure our neighbours also by doing so.” 

“I am therefore strongly of the opinion that if we practice the religion of humanity we should have a law making it obligatory on those who would have dogs to keep them under guard and not allow them to stray and making all stray dogs to be liable to be destroyed after a certain date.” 

“What I have insisted upon is a municipal by law authorizing municipalities to destroy unowned dogs. Every unlicensed dog should be should be caught by the police and immediately handed over to the Mahajan if they have adequate provision for the maintenance of these dogs and would submit to municipal supervision as to the adequacy of such a provision. Failing such a provision all stray dogs should be shot. This simple legislation will also prevent dogs from cruel neglect.” 

“I have never meant that everyone should own a dog. What I have said is that the dogs should in no case be ownerless. Not that owned dogs will be immune, but the owners will be responsible for them if they are diseased or get rabies.”  

Letter to Gandhiji:

“You ask us not to feed stray dogs, but we do not invite them. They simply come. How can they be turned back…we are all sinners, why should we not practice what little kindness we can?” 

Gandhiji’s reply:

“It is from this false feeling of compassion that we encourage himsa in the name of ahimsa. But as ignorance is no excuse before man-made law, even so is it no excuse before divine law… It is the duty of society to support the blind and the infirm, but everyone may not take the task upon himself… If it is thus a sin on the part of the individual to undertake feeding beggars, it is no less a sin for him to feed stray dogs. It is a false sense of compassion. It is an insult to the starving dog to throw a crumb at him. Roving dogs do not indicate compassion and civilization in society; they betray instead the ignorance and lethargy of its members… That means we should keep them and treat them with respect as we do our companions and not allow them to roam about. By aggravating the evil of stray dogs we shall not be acquitting ourselves of our duty to them… It is my firm conviction that this sorry plight is due to our misconception of ahimsa, is due to our want of ahimsa. Practice of ahimsa cannot have as its result impotence, impoverishment and famine. If this is a sacred land we should not see impoverishment stalking it.” 

“Cows we cannot protect, dogs we kick about and belabour with sticks, their ribs are seen sticking out and yet we are not ashamed of ourselves and raise a hue and cry when a stray dog is killed. Which of the two is better – that 5000 dogs should wander about in semi-starvation living on dirt and excreta and drag on a miserable existence, or that 50 should die and keep the rest in a decent condition?... But it is possible that the man who kills the dogs that he cannot bare to see tortured thus, maybe doing a meritorious act. Merely taking life is not always himsa, one may even say there is sometimes more himsa in not taking life.” 

“The destruction of bodies of tortured creatures being for their own peace cannot be regarded as himsa, or the unavoidable destruction caused for the purpose of protecting ones wards, cannot be regarded as himsa.” 

“For instance an alternative has been suggested in the shape of confining even rabid dogs in a certain place and allowing them to die a slow death. Now my idea of compassion makes this thing impossible for me. I cannot for a moment bear to see a dog or for that matter any other living being, helplessly suffering the torture of a slow death.” 

“If they really want to be humane they should finance a society to keep these dogs. But since neither the State nor the humanitarians care for these dogs driven mad by hunger and thirst, it is kinder to destroy them. 

“Letters on this subject are still pouring in, but I fail to discover any new question or any fresh argument advanced. I would therefore ask those who have been thinking on this subject to read this series of articles over and over again. I do so without the slightest hesitation, inasmuch as they are a result not of ideas hastily formed, but of experience of many years. I have presented no new principles, I cannot say how far the presentation is correct, but as it represents my honest conviction, and as many friends expect me to solve intricate problems in ahimsa, I can only ask them to turn to the series I have been writing. Some of my correspondents wrench my own sentences from their contexts and quote them against me, some quote part of them and omit the most essential remainder.” 

“A correspondent reminds me of the advice given to me by Shri Rajchandra when I approached him with a doubt as to what I should do if a serpent threatened to bite me. Certainly his advice was that rather than kill the serpent I should allow myself to be killed by it. But the correspondent forgets that it is not myself that is the subject matter of the present discussion, but the welfare of society in general as also of the suffering of animals. If I had approached Rajchandrabhai with the question whether I should or should not kill a serpent writhing in agony, and whose pain I could not relieve otherwise, or whether I should or should not kill a serpent threatening to bite a child under my protection, if I could not otherwise turn the reptile away, I do not know what answer he would have given. For me the answer is as clear as daylight and I have given it.” 

Letter to Gandhiji:

“You advocate the destruction of stray dogs. Do you include in the category the very useful village dogs?” 

Gandhiji’s reply:

“Most certainly I do not. The village dogs are the cheapest and most efficient police we have for protecting villagers against thieves at night and intruding dogs and other animals during the day. But I have not advocated an indiscriminate destruction of even stray dogs. Many other remedies have to be adopted before that drastic measure is resorted to. What I have insisted upon is a municipal by-law authorizing municipalities to destroy unowned dogs. This simple legislation will prevent dogs from cruel neglect and put the Mahajan upon their mettle. It is the indiscriminate and thoughtless charity which has to be resisted. That charity that feeds dogs and indeed men who choose to become beggars harms the beggars and the society which encourages such false charity.” 

Letter to Gandhiji:

“You say that if we can neither take individual charge of roving dogs nor have a pinjrapol for them, the only alternative is to kill them. Does that mean that every roving dog should be killed, although it may not be rabid? Don’t you agree that we leave unmolested all harmful beasts, birds and reptiles, so long as they do not actually harm us? Why should the dogs be an exception? Where is the humanity of shooting innocent dogs wherever they are found roving? How can one wishing well to all living beings do this?” 

Gandhiji’s reply:

“The writer has misunderstood my meaning. I would not suggest even the destruction of rabid dogs for the sake of it, much less that of innocent roving dogs. Nor have I said that these latter should be killed wherever they are found. I have only suggested legislation to that effect, so that as soon as the law is made, humane people might wake up in the matter and devise better management of stray dogs. Some of these might be owned, some might be put in quarantine. The remedy, when it is taken, will be once for all. Stray dogs do not drop down from heaven. They are sign of idleness, indifference and ignorance of society. When they grow into a nuisance, it is due to our ignorance and want of compassion. A stray dog is bound to take to his heels if you do not feed him. The measure I have suggested is actuated no less by a consideration of the welfare of dogs than by that of society. It is the duty of the humanitarian to allow no living being aimlessly to roam about. In performance of that duty it may be his duty once in a way to kill some dogs.” 

Letter to Gandhiji:

“How did you hit upon the religion of destroying dogs at the old age of 57? If it had occurred to you earlier than this why were you silent so long?” 

Gandhiji’s reply:

“Man proclaims a truth only when he sees it and when it is necessary, no matter even if it be in his old age. I have long recognized the duty of killing such animals within limits laid down above, and have acted upon it on occasions. In India the villagers have long recognized the duty of destroying intruding dogs. They keep dogs who scare away intruders and kill them if they do not escape with their lives. These watch-dogs are purposely maintained with the view to protecting the village from other dogs etc., as also from thieves and robbers whom they attack fearlessly. The dogs have become a nuisance only in cities, and the best remedy is to have a law against stray dogs.”   

Letter to Gandhiji:

“You have been so much under the Western influence that you have learnt to think that it is proper to kill lower beings for the sake of man. It is better to confess your error and apologise to the world. You should have made up your mind in this mater after exhaustless sifting. Instead you have passionately taken sides and discredited yourself.” 

Gandhiji’s reply:

“This is the least offensive sentence I have picked up from letters of this type. I submit I have not formed my opinion without much deliberation. It is not an opinion I have recently formed, neither is it hasty. One should not let his so called greatness come in the way of the formation of opinion, otherwise he cannot arrive at truth.” 

“I do not think that everything Western is to be rejected. I have condemned the Western civilization in no measured terms. I still do, but it does not mean that everything Western should be rejected. I have learnt a great deal from the West and I am grateful to it. I should think myself unfortunate if contact with and the literature of the West had no influence on me. But I do not think I owe my opinion about the dogs to my Western education or Western influence. The West (with the exception of a small school of thought) thinks that it is no sin to kill the lower animals for what it regards to be the benefit of man. It has therefore encouraged vivisection. The West does not think it wrong to commit violence of all kinds for the satisfaction of the palate. I do not subscribe to these views. According to the Western standard it is no sin, on the contrary it is a merit, to kill animals that are no longer useful. Whereas I recognize limits at every step. I regard even the destruction of vegetable life as himsa. It is not the teaching of the West.” 

“Argumentum ad hominum has no place in a discussion of principles and their practice. My opinions should be considered as they are, irrespective of whether they are derived from the West or the East. Whether they are based on truth or untruth, himsa or ahimsa is the only thing to be considered. I firmly believe they are based on truth and ahimsa.” 

“If anyone thinks that the people in the West are innocent of humanity he is sadly mistaken. The ideal of humanity in the West is perhaps lower, but their practice of it is very much more thorough than ours. We rest content with a lofty ideal and are slow and lazy in practice. We are wrapped up in deep darkness as is evident from our cattle, paupers and other animals. They are eloquent of our irreligion rather than our religion.” 

It is one of the beautiful compensations of this life that no one can sincerely try to help another without helping himself. --Charles Dudley Warner